One Woman’s Pardon: A Step to repealing one of the world’s most restrictive abortion bans

 By Paula González Montalvo

This past weekend marked International Women’s Day, a day when women and men across the world celebrate the achievements of women in society and advocate for expanding their opportunities. Today, we have reason to celebrate a victory in the long fight for women’s rights in Latin America —particularly, for women’s right to sexual and reproductive health and to make their own decisions with regard to these. On January 20th 2015, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly approved, by a bare minimum of 43 votes, the Supreme Court’s favorable recommendation towards granting a pardon to Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez Aldana.[1] The December 23, 2014 Supreme Court report stated that the woman was wrongly accused of aggravated homicide against her unborn child. It also certified that the criminal proceedings against her failed to observe due process safeguards. The positive recommendation concluded there are “not only powerful reasons of justice and equity, but also reasons of a judicial nature related to fundamental rights and guarantees,” which justify exonerating the accused.

            Since 1998, El Salvador has upheld one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Abortion in El Salvador is considered a crime under any circumstance, even in cases where the woman’s life or health is in danger, or cases involving rape or incest. The law makes it a legal offense for a woman to have an abortion or for anyone to assist her in seeking or carrying out a procedure to that end. This scenario has given way to the classifying of pregnancy-related complications as aggravated homicide and the imposition of severe prison sentences. As is common, the total ban on abortion has disproportionately affected poor women. While wealthy Salvadorans can afford private services or seek medical care abroad, poor women are forced to attend the country’s public clinics where they are often reported to the police, as was the case of Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez Aldana.

Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez Aldana, a domestic worker, became pregnant after being raped at age 18. When she experienced obstetrical complications and miscarried, her doctors accused her of having intentionally terminated her pregnancy, and called the police. She was soon after sentenced to 30 years in prison in February 2008. But Vásquez Aldana’s case is just one of many. According to Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, an El Salvador-based advocacy group,[2] more than a hundred Salvadoran women were prosecuted for abortion-related crimes in the country between 2000-2011.[3] Out of these, a total of 17 women were sentenced to up to 40 years in jail following reported miscarriages, most under charges of aggravated homicide. This last group of women, known as “Las 17,” became the focus of a global campaign in April 2014, when their lawyers requested a presidential pardon and subsequent release.[4] Vásquez Aldana is not only the first of the group to be granted a pardon, but also the recipient of the Legislative Assembly’s first-ever pardon to a woman imprisoned on abortion-related charges.

Today, only 4 women have received favorable recommendations for pardons, 9 are currently seeking them, and 6 have already received unfavorable recommendations. Attention on this matter, however, is increasing worldwide. Following the pardon in Vásquez Aldana’s favor, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a statement declaring that the legislative action should only be the first step towards more progress on the matter. UN experts wrote that the decision “must mark a turning point for the authorities,” and went on to reiterate the OHCHR’s decade-old condemnation of the country’s blanket abortion ban. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, for his part, discussed the matter with the Salvadoran Network of Women Human Rights Defenders as part of his recent visit to the country.[5] This was also the case with Alda Facio, member of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women. In addition, Amnesty International has set out to gather more than 200,000 signatures to petition leftist Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén to overturn the abortion laws.[6]

The increased awareness on the subject should pressure Salvadoran lawmakers to review and subsequently repeal their country’s repressive abortion ban. However, a 1998 amendment to the Salvadoran Constitution, recognizing the right to life from the moment of conception, makes the future reform of the law more challenging.[7] Vásquez Aldana’s release from prison is a glimmer of hope for the Salvadoran women who still await justice. It is also a victory for those of us who believe in the right of all women to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and in the importance of ensuring equitable access to sexual reproductive health and rights. The national legislative elections that just took place in March 1, 2015 could at least do away with past lawmakers’ fears of being labeled “pro-abortion.” In the meantime, I invite you to dare envision El Salvador as setting the example for other Latin American countries with outright abortion bans, such as Chile, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname. This remarkable turn of events in this small Central American country just set a precedent of justice, paving the way for continued success.

[1] Favorable recommendations from the Supreme Court are necessary for cases to be heard in the legislature.

[2] The group is backed by US-based Center for Reproductive Rights and international supporters such as Amnesty International.

[3] See Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico, Del Hospital a la Cárcel: Consecuencias para las mujeres por la penalización sin excepciones, de la interrupción del embarazo en El Salvador (2013), http://agrupacionciudadana.org/phocadownload/investigaciones/mujeres%20procesadas%20011013.pdf.

[4] For more on the Las 17 campaign, see Kathy Bougher, Salvadoran Council Uses Poverty to Justify Keeping ‘Las 17′ in Prison, RH Reality Check (Jan. 7, 2015, 5:18 PM), http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2015/01/07/salvadoran-council-uses-poverty-justify-keeping-las-17-prison/.

[5] In 1992, El Salvador put an end to its 12-year civil war, after reaching a UN backed peace accord. Ban Ki-Moon was visiting to commemorate the anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords.

[6] See “El Salvador: End the Ban On Abortion Now” Amnesty International UK, available at http://www.amnesty.org.uk/sites/default/files/el_salvador_petition.pdf (petition sample).

[7] See Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador 1983, as amended in 2003, art. 1, available at http://confinder.richmond.edu/admin/docs/ElSalvador1983English.pdf.

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